My week of pickling dangerously

I’ll eat anything pickled. Take the woodiest, stringiest vegetable – hell, take shoe leather – and soak it in brine for a while, and I’m fine with it. And since we seem to produce a lot of woody, stringy vegetables around here, pickling is the natural solution.

First came the beets. While they weren’t the worst beets I’ve ever had, they didn’t have enough of that sweet earthiness that makes beets beets. Enter vinegar, sugar, and salt. I cooked the beets (in the pressure cooker, 25 minutes and they’re done), slipped them from their skins, and layered them in a big jar with their greens and some sweet onion. In went the brine (1.5 c. vinegar, 1 c. water, ¾ c. sugar, 2 T. pickling salt), and it was all over but the waiting.

Before I go on to the cucumbers, let me pause to complain about beet recipes. For starters, why do they always tell you to scrub the beets before you boil them? You’re going to take the skin off, and you’re going to pour the water down the sink, so you can save yourself the tsuris of trying to get dirt off a craggy root vegetable and just toss it in the pot as is. And then there’s the greens, which most beet recipes simply ignore, despite the fact that, if you have beets, you are very likely to have beet greens. Beets and chard are the same plant. Literally. Beta vulgaris. Eat the greens.

After the beets and their greens came the cucumbers. For the first batch, I used the flowers from my one anaemic dill plant, some sliced garlic, and a brine of vinegar and water in a 1:1 ratio, with one tablespoon of salt per cup of vinegar.

So far, everything was just refrigerator pickles. What’s the point of doing the whole sterilized jar thing when you know you’re going to eat them all this month anyway?

The point, of course, is that you’d like to have pickles in February. So, when I got the next batch of pickling cucumbers (which is probably the last, as our plants are succumbing to powdery mildew), I put a giant pot of water on the stove and prepared to pickle in earnest.

Besides the cucumbers, I had green tomatoes, jalapenos, and green beans. Some of our tomato plants are suffering from a mysterious and irreversible decline, and I harvested their green fruit so they wouldn’t be a total loss. The jalapenos had been over-ripening on their bushes because there are only so many jalapenos you can eat. The beans, I got from my neighbor, Mike.

I will, in the not too distant future, tell you all about Mike, but for now let’s just say he’s the kind of gardener you hate. The kind of gardener whose garden is so healthy and prolific that he has more vegetables than he can keep up with. He showed me his overgrown green beans, and lamented his lack of time. I told him I’d pick them, pickle them, and bring him half. He said bring him a quarter and it’s a deal.

I washed my produce, lined up my pickling herbs and spices, and rolled up my sleeves.

Let the pickling begin.

The more you read about home canning, the harder it is to bring yourself to try it. Responsible authorities warn, in the direst tone, of the risks of preserving your own food. Botulism data is cited (263 people from 1990-2000, 4% of whom died). You learn that microorganisms lurk in every nook and cranny of every fruit and vegetable, and those microorganisms are heat-tolerant and wily.

The only way to be safe, you’re told, is to wash your jars in warm soapy water, sterilize them by boiling them for ten minutes, fill them when they’re hot, and process them in a water bath for at least ten minutes.

Unless, of course, you live in England, in which case you’re told that Americans are ridiculously germ-phobic, and that there are some foods that are perfectly safe to can without a water bath.

I first encountered this continental divide last year, at about this time, when I wrote about making jelly. Here in the US, most canners use water baths even on those foods whose low pH makes them low risk. Microorganisms hate acidity.

In the UK, and down there in Australia, they just laugh, and can jellies and pickles with any old thing – used jars, wax lids, plastic wrap and rubber bands.

Because I have yet to read a specific and compelling reason for giving pickles a water bath, because most of the developed world seems to believe it isn’t necessary, and because, given the choice between doing and not doing a step that takes time and an unconscionable amount of propane, I choose not doing it, I didn’t water-bathe my pickles.

And here’s what else I didn’t do. I didn’t make sure every last air bubble was out; I gave the jars a quick shake, but a cucumber spear has lots of safe havens for air bubbles. I didn’t avoid touching the insides of the jars, because I don’t see how you can stuff the green beans in without coming in contact with glass. I also didn’t sterilize the dish towel I wiped the jar rims with. It was clean, but what passes for clean in my house is a microbiological minefield in places where “clean” is more rigorously defined.

I did wash and sterilize my jars and lids. I did boil my brine (a 1 cup:1 cup: 1 tablespoon vinegar:water:salt ratio for everything but the jalapenos, which was 2:1 vinegar:water, with no salt). I did try to work quickly. I did listen for the pops of the seals, although I didn’t count.

I ended with two quarts and four pints of green beans (flavored with pickling spice and red pepper), four pints of cucumbers (with garlic, dill and pickling spice), four pints of green tomatoes (with garlic, mustard and pickling spice), and five cups of jalapenos (with nothing at all). I’ll be tasting them in a couple of weeks.

If posts stop abruptly, let that be a message to water-bathe your pickles.

18 people are having a conversation about “My week of pickling dangerously

  1. I, too, love anything pickled. This year I tried fermented pickles, and they were superb! Now you have me thinking that this weekend would be a good time to put up some dilly beans.

  2. Tamar, as a Yank who has lived in the UK for 23 years come 9th September, I can tell you that yes, Americans are germ-phobic. I’ve eaten many a jar of home canned goods over the years and lived to tell the tale.
    Enjoy your pickles. Is that a proper ‘kosher’ dill pickle recipe? Probably the only food you can’t get over here, or at least not like the ones in the States. I tried to eat as many as possible when I was there on vacation.

  3. If posts stop abruptly, let that be a message to water-bathe your pickles.

    ^This^ could go in your “Words to Live By” post.

    I recently attended a lecture about food preservation and have been thinking about starting to can some simple things, like applesauce and tomato sauce. Not necessarily because I want to can, but because our freezers are usually too full to preserve the season’s best produce. I’m glad to know it’ll probably be OK if I make a mistake with the stringent guidelines.

  4. I’m doing more freezing and less canning this year, particularly after our exchange about inadvertantly opening up ‘Tamar and Jen’s House of Botulism’. But I still make refridgerator pickles because they’re so easy. I’m pickling my only gluts so far: carrots, string beans and quails’ eggs. Not together, mind.

    Re. jalapenos – the crackling effect on a ripe jalapeno is called corking, so I’m informed by my pepper mentor. You can cut up your ripe peppers into pieces and stick them in a ziploc bag, and pop them in the freezer. Simply sprinkle a few frozen into your stir frys or cornbread as and when you need them. They freeze really well, no need to blanch etc.

    I thought you’d appreciate a bone idle food storage solution. In the nicest possible way.

    • “Re. jalapenos –” … have you ever tried drying these out like semi-dried tomatoes?

      I have a truckload of chilli seeds I planted out into trays, and am hoping for a bumper crop. Spring tomorrow (woohoo!)

  5. Tamar, bake your beets!. It preserves and emphasises the earthy favour much better than boiling, although it does take longer. The skins slip off just as easily, of course. I freeze mine once cooked I don’t bother with a water bath for jams etc, just make sure my bottles and lids are as clean as may be. My mother, who made all her own pickles, chutneys and jams, etc, never preserved green beans, and I have some of her old cook books (1920) which firmly warn against preserving green beans. I think the Dept of Pimary Industry here used to warn against it, too, I imagine because of the careless non-waterbath habits of the populace. (Hoping your blog doesn’t go tragically silent now that I’ve unlurked after nearly three years.)

  6. Laura — Some day I’ll write about my one experience trying fermented pickles. Suffice to say, for now, that it did not have a happy ending. But I’m thinking about trying it once more, with feeling.

    Kristin — Weird as it sounds, I don’t know whether I made bona fide Kosher dills. I suspect that the real thing is fermented (see above), in which case the answer is no. And I can’t answer for the flavor yet, as I haven’t tried them. But I, too, love a good Kosher dill, and one of the things I miss about New York was Gus’s Pickles, on the Lower East Side.

    Cat — Do *not* I repeat *NOT* take food safety advice from me, or anyone else who is as slapdash and lazy as I am. I sure hope my pickles are OK, and I suspect they will be, but my say-so shouldn’t be all that reassuring.

    Jen — Yes, the specter of Tamar and Jen’s House of Botulism haunts all my canning endeavors. And you’ve got my number on the bone idle thing (not that I make a secret of it). Last year, I did freeze my jalapenos, but I actually wanted pickled ones this year. We put them on burritos and pizzas, and I thought it would be nice to have our own. Of course, if they’re deadly, or just lousy, I’ll repent. Thanks for the tidbit on corking! I had no idea that had a name.

    Kingsley — I haven’t tried drying them, although a friend has offered me the use of dehydrator and I want to give it a whirl. And I’m jealous of your spring, just as we’re getting harbingers of winter.

    FraninOz — Thanks for coming out of the shadows! And with an excellent suggestion about beets, no less. I do sometimes go that route, sort of. I boil the beets just long enough to slip the skin, and then I cut and roast them the rest of the way. That way, you get the nice roasty bits on the outside, which you lose if you roast them whole and then peel them.

    I suspect the warning about green beans was about the non-pickled kind, which, I’m given to understand, are indeed dangerous because of their low acidity. I believe that, once you add vinegar, they’re on the “relatively safe” list. At least I hope so. It’s reassuring to hear that someone who’s been eating non-water-bathed canned goods for as long as you have supports the method.

  7. I’m in England and also still here to tell the tale. Perhaps more importantly, so are the people who eat my chutneys, pickles and jams…

  8. I still chuckle at all the rigorous safety measures you guys seem to think are necessary for canning and the fear of not doing it properly!! Frankly I “sterilize” my old jam jars in the dishwasher and then fill them, pop a wax disk on top and pop the lid on and forget about the jar at the back of my store cupboard for a year or so before consuming. Never, ever had a problem. When my Mum passed away we found jars of jam that she’d made over 5 years previously at the back of her larder – we ate them and are still here to tell the tale!

    I’m sure it’s just a conspiracy to make fewer people can their own produce and thus put more money in the pockets of large corporations (oh dear – now I sound completely batty!).

    Not that I think there are any bacteria in any of my preserved goods, but I’m also convinced that a few germs are good for you and give your immune system something to practice on. It’s an argument that works for me as the idea of trying to convert my home into a squeaky clean environment sends shivers down my spine …. it sounds like a recipe for endless housework.

    • Fiona, I don’t think you are batty thinking that many of the regulations and warnings we get are there to benefit businesses. And they are not even trying to hide it anymore. We are told that germs are evil and must be destroyed to sell us antibacterial soap; we are told that raw milk is the same as toxic waste to sell the milk from cows treated with hormones and kept in appalling conditions; we are told over and over that we should not trust our own judgment and should leave all our thinking to corporations and political leaders who claim to have our best interests at heart. America has a deeply engrained culture of fear which is cultivated by those who want to take the money out of our pockets.

      • Oh, the UK is following close behind in this!

        My current ‘favourite’ is the new automatic dispenser for (antibacterial) soap. This is so you don’t have to *gasp* touch the top of the soap bottle (in your own home! Not a public convenience) and come into contact with all those germs. Before you wash your hands anyway!
        My children groan if this advert comes on TV, because ‘Mum’s going to go off on one…’

        A comedian pointed out on a current affairs show that if there are more bacteria on your chopping board than on the loo seat (as we are frequently told) then that is clearly OK, otherwise we’d all be sick all the time.
        Unfortunately most people seem to think this means that they must rush off the Tesco and buy the latest antibacterial cleaner. Which is reducing childhood immunity levels and increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

        Anyway, rant over. Sorry Tamar.

        I would like to say that of course I pay attention to hygiene when preserving food, it’s just that we seem to be deficient in herd common sense in other aspects of home cleaning.

    • 5 years! I can top that – the jar of hot apple chutney that we ate last week – and yes we did grow the apples, onions ourselves but not the chillies – was dated 2001. No water baths, just a recycled honey jar in a dishwasher and really hot sugar, a wax disk and the lid back on top. I’m still typing and no madder than usual. Any increase on that, folks?

  9. I also do not do water bath, have not died yet, actually freeze whenever possible which is 99% of the time. If its hot going in the jar and the lid seals I figure its just fine! I also make “pseudo-jam” which consists of putting fruit minus pits in the crock pot with a bit of lemon juice, do peel the apples, cook to desired consistancy. May have to take lid off for last couple of hours. Only add minimum sugar to make really sour stuff taste like fruit (rhubarb and some plums) ladle in quart freezer bags and you have perfectly healthful spreads, ice cream or pound cake topping or whatever. Our 0 dark 30 snack before going on the paper route consists of whole grain bread, pb and honey mix and the afore mentioned fruit compote. Holds us nicely for the 4 hours we are out!

  10. While I eschew antibacterial soap because I like to provide a hospitable home for my bacteria, I’ll go on record here as not thinking there’s anything sinister in the canning recommendations. If anything, they’re a byproduct of litigiousness, not a conspiracy between, who? Clausen’s? Smuckers?, and the government.

    While I certainly think Big Agriculture has weilded influence, and government has given way, in ways that do us harm (think farm subsidies), I think the policies that result are perfectly straightforward. No need to look under rocks.

  11. I’ve been pickling beats for 20 years – from my mothers recipe – without ever having hot water bathed any jar. a couple years ago i started making my own apple pie filling and now my GF tells me “You HAVE TO hot water bath everything you “CAN”!”. I am SO paranoid now that i have happily sent off pickles and apple pie filling to friends and family that are not processed properly…… aaahhhh… even to the point that i am on here today – wondering if i can hot water bath my pickles today – when i canned them yesterday… should i be worried about this> or should i just merrily go on my way placing hot beats, into hot sterilized jars, with hot brine and hot lids? I assumed if the lid sealed we were good!?

  12. I am disturbed about the “new” USDA canning guidelines. The interesting thing is that it was in 1989 that they updated them, declaring old fashioned canning methods “verboten”. It took them five years to produce their own canning book (1994). (Oh dear, what about the people canning the old way during the interim!) As of 2000, only 19% of people in the US were canning accordingly and to extension service guidelines. I have been canning jams, jellies, pickles for over 20 years without water bathing them (with the exception of okra and green bean pickles); my mother did it for over 60 years. I intend to continue doing so. You cannot get sick on clean produce, preserved in salt and vinegar, especially if boiled hot before putting into sterilized, boiling hot jars, with boiling hot lids. Any problems I’ve read about with botulism concern vegetables, e.g. green beans and corn, which must be processed correctly or botulism can result, but not with fruit, sugar, salt, vinegar. I think we need to retrieve the common sense that has been almost a birthright of Americans, and stop letting fear control our lives. One problem is that 80% of Americans are now urban, and are at least three generations off of the farm. I think it’s a shame that the USDA is helping people become afraid of food.

    • Well said. Next time you are looking at advertisements on TV take a look at the product. Many of them promote their sales by a: telling us about a need we never even knew we had or b: creating a fear whether it be we are a bad person or parent if we don’t use their product or by just creating a fear that is not true so a person will buy a product. Again it comes done to education and choice. We are still a free country and if we choose to use common sense rather than the USDA to determine our canning methods the *gasp* so be it! Antibacterial hand agents are correctly used in hospitals and public locations but at home…… really….. we need the germs to keep us healthy.

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